Analysis: Israel's sober 60th birthday

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  May 9, 2008 at 12:41 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 9 (UPI) -- Hezbollah, the Shiite Party of God, gave Israel a 60th birthday present it didn't bargain for by taking over West Beirut Friday.

The ease of the takeover and the rapidity with which the Lebanese Army that was supposed to restrain Hezbollah and preserve moderation and balance confounded the policymakers in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government and deepened the sense of existential crisis in the Jewish state. Both within and without, Israel is now more tightly besieged and more desperately in need of decisive, effective leadership than at any time in the past 40 years.

Olmert, indeed, has already proved himself the weakest and most disastrous Israeli prime minister since Levi Eshkol, whose scared, trembling incompetence paralyzed the Jewish state's leadership when President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt defied international agreements and sent 80,000 Egyptian soldiers into the previously demilitarized Sinai desert in May 1967.

Olmert has clung to power as a discredited lame duck for almost two years since he disastrously bungled Israel's July 2006 mini-war against Hezbollah. Israel's air force and special forces proved themselves as phenomenally ultra-efficient as ever. But Olmert scrapped the detailed plans for a massive land invasion by a ground combat force of at least 50,000 men and accepted the glib assurances of his armed forces chief of staff, former Israel Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, that air power could pulverize Hezbollah easily.

Instead, Hezbollah forces were superbly well dug in, maintained most of their positions and were able to bombard northern Israeli with thousands of projectiles from their Russian-supplied Grad 122mm multiple launch rocket mortars, known as Katyushas. Casualties and real damage to northern Israel were minimal, but the shock to Israeli morale was profound, and much of the northern part of the country was temporarily evacuated.

Since then, Olmert has clung to power with the tenacity of a limpet, holding out against his principal challengers from the right -- Likud Party leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- and from the left -- current Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak -- alike.

Olmert has been able to do this because the members of his ruling Kadima Party in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, and their key allies, realize they will be swept away by angry voters in any general election and they therefore want to hang on to their ministerial and parliamentary positions and perks as long as they can.

Yet since his Hezbollah mini-war fiasco, Olmert has passively presided over the continuing and ominous erosion of Israel's security situation. Israel's regional security situation has now deteriorated to a degree not seen since at least May 1967.

-- Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, has vastly strengthened its political and strategic control of southern Lebanon and once again brandishes a vast arsenal of Katyusha-Grad multiple launch rocket mortars.

-- Syria is being rearmed by Russia, especially with highly accurate Iskander-B tactical missiles that can hit most of Israel, and the Syrian army now poses the most formidable challenge it has to Israel in 35 years since it launched the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

-- To the south, Olmert, like Israeli leaders before him, continues to disastrously underestimate the formidable capabilities of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which continues to bombard the Israeli development town of Sderot and other Israeli targets with impunity with its low-tech but still potentially lethal Qassam rockets.

-- Worse yet, Hamas' political clout is growing by leaps and bounds on the West Bank, where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is as much of a lame duck in his way as Olmert.

The great Irish historian Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote a classic history of the Israeli-Arab conflict called "The Siege." As Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary of surviving and prospering against often apparently impossible odds, it has to face the grim reality that under Olmert, that siege has tightened its grip more seriously than it had for generations.

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